Archive for John Calvin

Limited Atonement- J. Calvin (Part II)

Posted in Biblical Studies with tags , on November 26, 2012 by taylorvincentroche

Continuing on the conversation from my previous post:

John Calvin penned his book, Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536.The Synod of Dort was composed in 1619 and the Westminster Confession was completed in 1647.By beginning with The Institutes of Christian Religion, and working forward, examining in detail what each work says about the doctrine of predestination and in particular Limited Atonement, it will be possible to see exactly how the doctrine of Calvin have evolved.  Because of the controversy surrounding the doctrine of Limited Atonement, the purpose of examining these works will be to directly learn what they say about the scope of Christ’s work on the cross.  The other four points of Calvinism are less debated, and for the sake of time and space the focus of this paper is directed at Limited Atonement.  As just previously mentioned, this paper will begin with the Institutes and work forwards to the Westminster Confession.

Calvin devotes a mere four chapters to the topic of predestination in his Institutes.  It is important to understand the John Calvin never specifically addresses Limited Atonement.  So in some regard it is impossible to prove that he believed in Limited Atonement.  What can be proven is that Calvin believed in the two principles that lead directly to Limited Atonement.  This paper makes no claims that Limited Atonement was a doctrine that John Calvin taught.  However this paper does claim that Calvin’s theology is clearly described and accurately developed in Calvinism. The two points that Calvin held which lead to Limited Atonement are as follows, first Calvin clearly understands Jesus’ death to bring about actual remission of sin and actually obtain salvation.

Secondly, Calvin also believes that salvation is for the elect alone. These points will be elaborated on in detail.In book three chapter XXII, titled “This Doctrine Confirmed by Proofs from Scripture” Calvin specifically addresses the discussion on Christ’s atonement. According to Calvin, salvation is for solely the elect. Quoting directly from him,

“But it is by Isaiah he more clearly demonstrates how he destines the promises

of salvation especially to the elect (Isa 8:16); for he declares that his disciples

would consist of them only, not indiscriminately of the whole human race.”

This illustrates that Calvin understood salvation for the elect alone.  This alone does not prove that the doctrine of Limited Atonement even entered into Calvin’s head. It simply proves that Calvin believed that salvation was only attained by the elect. This is the first point of two. Earlier in his same work, Calvin affirms what has already been stated, that Jesus’ death obtains the actual remission of sin.  Quoting directly from book two chapter XVII, “Christ Rightly and Properly Said to Have Merited Grace and Salvation for Us”,

“That is Christ, by his obedience, truly purchased and merited grace for us

with the Father, is accurately inferred from several passages of Scripture. I

take it for granted, that if Christ satisfied our sins, if he paid the penalty due

by us, if he appeased G-d by his obedience; in fine, if he suffered the just for the

unjust, salvation was obtained for us by his righteousness; which is just equivalent

to meriting.”

This quote along with others that cannot be quoted verbatim illustrate the second point about Calvin’s theology. That Jesus’ death is complete, final, all that is necessary for sins, and obtains real removal of sin. For Calvin, Jesus’ death on the cross does not simply provide the possibility of remission of sins but the actual remission of sins.

This statement along with numerous other statements that can be found in John Calvin’s Institutes prove that Calvin firmly believed Jesus’ death to in no ways be in vain.  Calvin firmly held to the fact that Christ’s work on the cross was final and complete.

From these two points it shows that for Calvin, all whom Christ died for are saved.  It is reasonable then that since Calvin also affirmed that not everyone is saved, he did not believe in Universal Atonement.

Therefore it is not inaccurate or misleading for later Calvinists to affirm Limited Atonement in response to Arminian writings.  John Calvin’s theology clearly affirmed the two principles that lead directly and inescapably to the doctrine of Limited Atonement. Eighty-three years after the Institutes was completed the Synod of Dort was written in response to the Five Articles of Remonstrance.The Five Articles of Remonstrance was a work composed by Dutch theologians who were disciples of Jacobus Arminius, the founder of Arminianism.  It is generally considered that here, in 1619, those composing the Synod of Dort made Calvin’s doctrine of predestination more rigid than he had ever intended.  Because the Synod of Dort was composed in response to the doctrine found in the Five Articles of Remonstrance, it is not a complete exposition of Calvinist theology but merely disagrees with the Five Articles.  Almost every article’s function is a refutation an Arminian view of predestination and affirmation Calvinist position. This format makes it very simple to discern exactly what the composers meant.  In Section 02: “Of the Death of Christ and the Redemption of Men Thereby” under the “Rejection of Errors” heading the Synod states that the claim that Christ died for all (Universal Atonement) is “injurious to the wisdom of G-d, the merit of Christ, is contrary to Scripture.”

The Synod of Dort goes on to claim what will later become known as Limited Atonement. In regard to the other five points of Calvinism, although they were not discussed in relation to the Westminster Confession, the Synod of Dort clearly affirms Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace, and Perseverance of the Saints.  The Synod of Dort seems to be much harsher in its language than the Westminster Confession. It is clearly obvious that the composers of the Synod of Dort are attempting to draw clear and distinct lines between their own beliefs and Arminian theology. Because the authors of the Synod of Dort are responding to the Five Articles of Remonstrance, they seem to be affirming what is exactly contrary to the Five Articles.

The Westminster Confession is generally regarded as the best expression of Calvinist theology during its time. Quite obviously it addresses many doctrines other than the theology in question.  However this paper will limit itself to only to those articles pertaining to predestination and particularly Limited Atonement.  Both sides of this debate agree that the Westminster Confession claims Limited Atonement.  In Chapter XIII section V the Confession agrees that Christ’s sacrifice is only for those who were given to him by the Father. Just earlier in Chapter X section I the Confession states again that the elect alone are the purpose of Jesus Christ’s work on the cross. Again in the next Chapter, XI, section IV the Confession concludes that the justifying work of Christ fulfilled an eternal decree promised by G-d to those whom He had elected.

This is sufficient evidence that the Westminster Confession asserts Limited Atonement.  Using this as a reference point it is possible to track the evolution, or lack thereof, of Calvin’s doctrine backwards in time.  In regard to other points of predestination, the Westminster Confession seems to hold fairly clearly to Calvin’s theology.  It is also clear though, that the atonement found in the articles of the Confession is Limited Atonement.

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Limited Atonement- J. Calvin (Part I)

Posted in Biblical Studies with tags , on November 22, 2012 by taylorvincentroche

One accusation often raised by those who claim Calvinism has evolved far from what Calvin himself ever intended is that the doctrine of predestination was never the center of Calvin’s theology, as it has become the center of Calvinist theology.  This statement is partially true. During the time of the Reformation, doctrines often functioned as concrete lines that served to help clearly define certain groups and societies.  This was a noticeable shift away from the precedent of the early Church. Early Church councils often only focused on expelling that person or doctrine that was deemed heretical.

Around the time of the Reformation, however, Church councils began to use doctrines to define not those outside the Church, but inside.  One of the reasons for a greater emphasis on predestination among Calvinists is that many Calvinists felt the need to distinguish themselves from Lutherans.

Lutheran theology by and large was very similar to Calvinist theology.  One of the only points of difference was the doctrine of predestination.  Because doctrines had this newfound role as lines of demarcation there was a natural tendency among Calvinists to place a higher emphasis on the doctrine of predestination.  While this is a worthy observation and something modern Calvinists must be aware of, it does not necessarily prove that Calvinists have distorted the theology of John Calvin.  As long as Calvinists still hold to the same core doctrine, differing emphases are not necessarily harmful to Calvin’s original theology.

Perhaps the most well founded argument behind the belief that Calvinists have twisted and applied Calvin’s doctrine in ways he never intended is the assertion that John Calvin never claimed Limited Atonement.

Limited Atonement is one of the five points of Calvinism.  Limited Atonement simply means that Jesus’ death on the cross was for the elect alone, not the entire world.  This point happens to be one of the most controversial points, as well as the one point that seems to clearly in contradict Scripture.  Many seek to circumvent this difficulty by denying that Calvin ever held the doctrine of Limited Atonement.

Those who hold this opinion present numerous historical reasons why those directly following Calvin might have felt inclined to further develop and in some cases even twist Calvin’s theology.  These reasons will be explored in some depth, but first it is important to be reminded of the purpose of this exploration.  The goal is to understand if the followers of John Calvin have merely expounded upon his doctrine of predestination or if they have misunderstood and misrepresented this doctrine.

On this subject some claim that following the death of John Calvin, his theology came under serious attack from a variety of directions.  It fell to the disciples of Calvin to defend his theology from these attacks however they could.  One thing in particular that needed to be demonstrated was the coherency of Calvin’s theology.  According to Alister E. McGrath in his biography on John Calvin, early Calvinist writers began a new approach to prove their theology. This was done in four different ways.

First, Christian theology is presented as a logically coherent and rationally defensible system, derived from syllogistic deductions based upon known axioms. Second human reason is assigned a major role in the exploration and defense of Christian theology. Thirdly, theology is understood to be grounded upon Aristotelian philosophy, and particularly Aristotelian insights into the nature of method; later Reformed writers are better described as philosophical, rather than biblical, theologians.  Fourth, theology is concerned with metaphysical and speculative questions, especially relating to the nature of G-d, his will for humanity and creation, and above all the doctrine of predestination.

In this excerpt McGrath uses four proofs to illustrate the fact that shortly after Calvin’s death, there came to be a higher emphasis on human reason and logic. He later asserts that this is an emphasis that Calvin would have been suspicious of.  The accusation here is that Calvin’s direct followers, namely Theodore Beza and Giralmo Zanchi, in their defense of Calvin’s theology began in a completely different place than Calvin and used completely different methods than Calvin.

For example, Beza and Zanchi are accused of starting their theology at predestination, thus making it the center of their beliefs, something John Calvin never did.  They are also accused of using reason and logic to move forward, attempting to prove the consistency of Calvinism, a method also not used not used by John Calvin never did either.

It rather naturally follows that considering these facts that the understanding of the doctrine of predestination that they developed was not the same doctrine that Calvin himself held.  There is no denying that the accusations that have been raised here are good ones.  All of them at the very least point to the fact that it is quite possible that Beza and Zanchi created a new understanding of the doctrine of predestination.  However, their evidence does not prove that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination is any different than Calvin’s own doctrine of predestination.  The consistency between Calvin’s doctrine and the Calvinist’s articulation can be shown by a direct examination of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Synod of Dort, and the Westminster Confession.